modesty

♀ A Streak of Red For Every Woman

Photograph by  Gage Skidmore  via  photopin   cc .

Photograph by Gage Skidmore via photopin cc.

Recently my wife and I have been watching Once Upon a Time, a TV show peopled with characters from well-known faerie[1] tales and stories. The premise of the show is that an Evil Queen has cursed the inhabitants of the faerie world, sending them to a world where magic does not exist (our own) and causing them to forget their own identities and backstories. Using a split timeline, each episode follows the characters through their real-world existence while gradually revealing bits of their previous lives from the “story” world.

I recently realized something while watching one of the final episodes of season one: nearly all the women in both timelines dress “modestly”. That is, they wear knee-length or longer skirts and rarely show much cleavage. The main character, Emma, wears mostly pants and leather jackets or sweaters, with only the occasional tank top or camisole that shows a little more skin. “Mary Margaret”, the real-world name for the Snow White character—who is more or less the actual protagonist of the story—dresses in shirts that button up all the way to her neck.

Of course, women should feel free to cover up as much of their bodies as they like, so if I could say that “all” the characters dress modestly instead of “most”, we wouldn’t be talking about this. Unfortunately, the show—deliberately or not—uses modesty codes to reinforce slut-shaming stereotypes about women’s sexuality, correlating a lack of “modesty” with misbehavior of other kinds. Only three characters (in season one, which is all I have seen so far) consistently deviate from traditional modesty: Ruby (or Red Riding Hood), The Blue Faerie (a nun in the real world), and the Evil Queen herself.

The Evil Queen is, of course, evil. In the real world, where she is pretending to be a good person, she dresses in business attire—suits with buttoned-up shirts. In nearly all the faerie world stories, though, she shows amounts of cleavage ranging from, “So, here are my breasts” to “How do those stay in?!” Sometimes she accompanies this with skirts that open all the way up to the thigh, but not always.

I could write this off as simply adherence to convention. Similarly, The Blue Faerie wears the same low-cut blue dress in all her scenes, and this may not represent overtly bad ideology on the part of the show’s creators.[2] But I want to talk about Ruby, because the show deliberately uses her sexuality and its sartorial expression to communicate ideas I think are negative and hurtful to women.

In early episodes of the show, Ruby generally wears very tight red shorts of the “Asking For It” length and a white button-down shirt with only the middle two buttons fastened and the tails tied up to expose her midriff. In colder months, she swaps the shorts for tight red pants that she should really have left back in 1994 where she found them. She has a brilliant red streak in her otherwise brown hair and wears a shade of lipstick to match, along with heavy, dark eye makeup.

Despite no evidence that Ruby is even sexually active, the show portrays her as flirtatious, oversexed, and vaguely disreputable. She works as a server at her grandmother’s diner—a social center of the town—so she crops up frequently even in episodes that don’t feature her character. In one episode, when Mary Margaret goes to the diner on a date, her male companion earns her disfavor by continually ogling Ruby from across the room when he should be paying attention to Mary Margaret. Ruby generally has a snarky word for everyone and seems to lack empathy or regard for her low reputation—except in one episode where she helps a pregnant teen, claiming she doesn’t like people judging the girl.

Partway through season one, Ruby grows dissatisfied working at the diner and, after a fight with her grandmother, takes a different job as assistant to the town Sheriff. Although she performs well in this position, she realizes it isn’t for her. She humbly returns to the diner and reconciles with her grandmother, who reveals that she has been grooming Ruby to take over the business. Having gained confidence from her success in another venture, Ruby appears to embrace her new role as up-and-coming manager of the diner, finding the work more fulfilling than before. Consequently, she begins wearing less revealing clothing and lighter makeup. She lets the red streak fade from her hair and adopts a more serious and friendly—and less sexualized—demeanor.

So, what do we learn from Ruby’s arc in the first season?

  1. Women who wear revealing clothing are choosing to present themselves as sexualized and rightly earn disapproval for this.
  2. People will consider them to be promiscuous without any additional evidence beyond their attire.
  3. They will tempt men away from other, more virtuous women.
  4. This behavior probably stems from immaturity or psychological problems.

These ideas represent a few facets of the multi-layered concept called “Slut Shaming”. Reductively, slut shaming attaches negative character to women who are—or are perceived to be—sexually promiscuous, who openly enjoy sex, or who dress or present themselves in a way that is deemed overly sexual according to societal norms. The widespread practice of both overt and backhanded slut shaming hurts women because the standards to which they must adhere to avoid the moniker of “slut” shift constantly and exist at times only in the minds of those doing the shaming. For example, “sexually promiscuous” is a completely subjective term. How many sexual partners must a woman have to be considered “promiscuous”? Five? Ten? Fifty? The number is indefinite, meaning that any woman known to have had sex even once with someone who is not her husband can qualify as promiscuous, particularly in socially conservative subcultures.

When it comes to dress, the lines blur once again; one person’s prudish is another’s proper. Most people, and particularly men, interpret the intentions of a woman’s clothing choices according to the reactions produced in themselves. Thus, a woman might choose to wear a short skirt because she finds it flattering to her silhouette, but a male viewer could all too easily attribute sexualized motives to the decision, assuming that the sexual response he feels when he looks at the woman reflects her reason for wearing the skirt. Since men quite frequently experience a sexual response to even women in relatively formless garments that hide everything except their face and hands, this “standard” places women in a lose-lose position, where literally nothing in their wardrobes can, with absolute certainty, protect them from slut shaming.

Now, I am not suggesting that women never wear revealing clothing because they feel insecure or want inappopriate attention, or because they are acting out in response to a psychological problem, or because they really do have a cavalier attitude toward sex and are hoping to attract lots of potential sex partners. What I am saying is that women might have any number of other legitimate reasons for wearing clothing you think is too revealing, and you have no idea what they are. So the appropriate response when encountering a woman in revealing clothes is not to inwardly or outwardly slut-shame her but to assume that she is three-dimensional person who makes choices about her attire that have nothing to do with you or your own standards of dress.

Messages to the contrary litter entertainment media. Keep your eyes open; you’ll start to see them everywhere. I don’t bring this up to ruin all the things you like; I haven’t stopped watching Once Upon a Time, and I don’t plan to stop. But I do like to be aware of the messages my media choices are sending; I can’t combat bad ideology in myself or others until I perceive it.




  1. Yes, that’s how you spell it. Get off my lawn.  ↩

  2. Of course, both these tropes also have sexism at their roots, but that is beyond the scope of this post.  ↩

The Modesty Mob

The recent trial of Nechemya Weberman has brought attention to—for lack of a better term—vigilantes who threaten and shame members of the Hasidic community of Brooklyn into complying with their modesty codes:

“They operate like the Mafia,” said Rabbi Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

Rabbi Nadler, who testified at Mr. Weberman’s trial, said that modesty committees did not have addresses, stationery or business cards, and that few people seemed to know where their authority originated, though it was doubtful, he said, that they could continue operating without the tacit blessings of rabbinical leaders.

“They walk into a store and say it would be a shame if your window was broken or you lost your clientele,” he said. “They might tell the father of a girl who wears a skirt that’s too short and he’s, say, a store owner: ‘If you ever want to sell a pair of shoes, speak to your daughter.’”

Hasidic leaders are essentially throwing their hands in the air:

“These are individual people who decide to take on this crusade,” said Rabbi David Niederman, who as president of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg is a sometime spokesman for the Satmar Hasidim. “You see posters telling people do this and do that. It does not represent an authorized body.”

Notice that nowhere in that statement does Niederman condemn the group’s actions.

Skirt the Issue

Creative grassroots activism at its best: 25 Indian men spent this past Saturday wearing skirts as protest against the belief that women’s “immodesty” bears partial responsibility for rape.

One man said: “Please don’t judge a woman for what she wears, it’s more important that you respect her for her character and what she is. Whatever she does, please leave it to her.”

Tattooed Ladies

I’ll bet you thought that title would turn out to be some kind of metaphor, didn’t you? Nope! This post is about the history of tattooed ladies in circus sideshows.

Tattoos on women aren’t new to us, and they really weren’t new to the ladies of the circus sideshows either. Tattooing and women have a long history, which twists and turns with changing ideals about adornment, modesty, independence, and function.

Twists! Turns! Exotic stories! Semi-nudity gawked at openly by otherwise decent people! Step right up, folks.

We Thought Modesty Made Us Timeless

Sierra of The Phoenix and Olive Branch recalls what it was like to grow up wearing “holiness”:

We told the comprehensive history of feminine apparel along these lines:

  1. God clothed Eve in the Garden.
  2. Women wore long robes, like men (but, crucially, not the same kind of robes).
  3. Women wore lots of fabric until the 20th century.
  4. From 1920 on, increasing amounts of sin in society caused women to strip off gradually.
  5. Eventually women will return to being naked, like in the Garden before God intervened, but without the innocence.

Except that narrow trajectory, in which clothing becomes simply skimpier and skimpier, doesn’t jive [sic] with actual history. The only real constants in the history of fashion are its tendency to change and its reflection of social hierarchies.

Sierra challenges her former—and many people’s current—narrative about modesty by simply showing us pictures of 20th-century dress.

Women in Indonesian City Banned from Straddling Motorbikes in Sharia Crackdown

Women in the Indonesian city of Lhokseumawe have been banned from straddling motorbikes because of fears that it distracts men drivers.

Civic leaders in Aceh province, which is ruled by strict sharia law, have launched a crackdown on what they say are un-Islamic practices.

A culture whose men get distracted when they see a woman sitting with her legs apart while riding a motorcycle or bicycle may have more serious problems.

The mayor told the Jakarta Globe that behaviour and morals were straying from Aceh’s Islamic cultural values.

“We want to save women from things that will cause them to violate shariah law. We wish to honour women with this ban because they are delicate creatures,” he said.

Totally. Remember that time I wanted to honor a woman, so I started bossing her around and forbidding her from doing very reasonable things?

Via The Frisky.

"The Act of the Rapist Is Made Easy"

Women in Swaziland risk arrest if they wear mini-skirts or tops which expose part of their stomach, a police spokeswoman has said.

Wendy Hleta said police would enforce an 1889 law which bans “immoral” dressing if they receive a complaint.

She also said women in the deeply conservative kingdom make it easier for rapists by wearing mini-skirts.

As outrageous as that sounds, this next part is my favorite:

Women who wear “skimpy clothes” also draw unnecessary attention to themselves, Ms Hleta said.

“I have read from the social networks that men and even other women have a tendency of ‘undressing people with their eyes’. That becomes easier when the clothes are hugging or are more revealing,” Ms Hleta is quoted as saying.

I’m not even sure where to start with this. The phrase “undressing her with his eyes” has been around at least as long as I have, so quoting it as some kind of hip new trend sounds out of touch, to put it mildly. Also, it seems incredibly inappropriate for a police department to base its policies on anecdotal evidence scraped from social networks.

Could women spur some change in Swaziland by taking to “the social networks” in outspoken opposition to rape culture?

Via Jezebel.

♀ Is My Epidermis Making You Uncomfortable?

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I used to have a roommate who was kind of a slob—the sort of person who has a shoulder-high pile of junk/garbage by his door that you can tell would be higher if he didn’t have to open the door to leave his room. One day, while my parents were visiting me for a week, this person came down to the kitchen wearing what he assured me were shorts but appeared to the uninitiated to be a pair of boxers.[1] This made my mom, who was within sight of the kitchen, feel a little uncomfortable, although not—as you might suppose—because of the raw sex appeal of his man-legs.

A week ago, Emily Maynard published a piece at ChurchLeaders.com about modesty, a re-publishing of a post originally written for Prodigal Magazine called “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility”. The comments section of the post heated up, leading to several other posts on the subject, many of which are very worth reading. I particularly recommend “How the Modesty Doctrine Fuels Rape Culture” by Libby Anne, “On Modesty and Male Privilege” by Luke Harms, and “Women, Bodies, & Temples of the Holy Spirit” by Danielle Vermeer.

Maynard’s original post recounts the damage the modesty culture wrought on her body image and argues that women must not be held responsible for provoking lust in men:

Nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else. Only Jesus can lovingly confront and heal a lustful heart through the working of the Holy Spirit. You can’t change anyone, control anyone, make someone sin or not sin, and you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.

I agree. In the Bible story most frequently cited when discussing this issue, Jesus says nothing about how women dress. He warns people against lust. This puts the burden on the “lust-er”, not the “lust-ee”, which means that men are responsible for their sexual integrity even when a woman is showing cleavage, when she’s wearing a short skirt, when she has on high heels, or even if she walks straight into their living room wearing nothing but a thong and pasties.

But, because I am a contrarian, I always like to find the under-represented side of the conversation. Since I agree so wholeheartedly with all the above-linked articles, this is a little difficult, but don’t worry—I figured out how.[2]

Modesty, you see—and I am here talking about the definition of “modesty” that revolves around how one dresses, not the one about being a gracious winner and so forth—has two components. The first, covered more than competently by Emily Maynard et al, concerns whether others may sexualize or objectify someone because of his or her clothing choices. The second component, nearly never addressed by anyone except C.S. Lewis (bless his heart), is politeness—being considerate of other people and refraining from making them uncomfortable.

Politeness is all about context. So, with regard to standards of dress, San people living in the Bush who wear nothing but thongs are not being rude; their clothing is appropriate for their context. A man who takes off his shirt at the beach is not being rude; this choice is also appropriate for the context.

A guy who takes off his shirt in your kitchen—that guy is being rude. The context is not appropriate for shirtlessness; his choice of attire is probably going to make people feel uncomfortable.

From this we can see that the amount of skin people choose to show has no objective moral component; context determines appropriateness of attire. In this sense, then, women might be able to “sin” by displaying too much cleavage—if cleavage is out of place for their particular context (and if your definition of “sin” is very broad indeed). But it is probably more helpful to think not of “sinning” but of being polite.

I believe politeness is a virtue; Christians ought to be polite to others when possible. Many other, greater virtues may trump the virture of politeness, but all other things being equal, we should strive to make people feel comfortable by our behavior. How we do this changes with cultural shifts. For example, we no longer belch loudly when eating to reassure the person who cooked our food that we are enjoying it. This behavior, once considered polite, would now make other people uncomfortable.

So it is with clothing, particularly for women. Whereas displaying a liberal amount of leg used to be a great way for women to communicate to others that they were in the company of a prostitute, now most people do not find the sight of a woman’s calf discomfiting at all. To give a more recent example: I’m from the Midwest, but I lived for two years in Los Angeles, and the ladies at the church we attended took advantage of the nearly-perpetual summer to wear sundresses to the service. I had never seen so much cleavage at church before, but that was just the culture there. No one felt uncomfortable because of it (as far as I know). Let a woman throw on such a dress to attend church in Northern Indiana, though, and she would certainly receive a non-trivial number of stares.

Some of those stares would be indignant, because conservative Christian culture trains men to think that if they see too much lady-skin—especially if they receive any pleasure at all from seeing it—they must be sinning. Unfortunately for such men, human biology dictates that women, however conservatively dressed, draw the male eye. Even more disconcertingly, the little hormone rush we get when we see a sexually-appealing woman’s body parts means we’re going to like it, whether we want to or not. As Maynard assures us, this does not mean we are falling prey to lust:

God created you to desire another person for affection, intimacy, and relationship! Being physically attracted to someone is not lust. Wanting to kiss someone is not lust. Enjoying kissing someone is not lust. Those desires can be a catalyst for lust, but in themselves, they are morally-neutral, God-created, biological and chemical reactions. Your body recognizing sexual compatibility with another person is not inherently evil.

It’s hard to believe that this biological reaction is the thing Jesus was warning about in Matthew 5. Maynard is probably correct in suggesting a better definition for lust:

It is the ritual taking, obsessing, and using someone else for your own benefit rather than valuing that person as an equal image-bearer of God. Lust is forming people in your own image, for your own purposes, whether for sexual pleasure, emotional security, or moral superiority.

Unfortunately, I think many men in conservative churches conflate “lust” and the uncomfortableness of seeing a woman dressed more revealingly than what they perceive as normal. Since conservative Christians tend to be a little behind on many aspects of culture, it has become all too easy for a woman to show an amount of skin that passes the threshold of “normal” for these men. Unusual sights draw the eye; we tend to have a hard time looking away from things that are out of the ordinary for us, and this is all the more true when those things register in our brains as sexually appealing. Men may find themselves momentarily staring at a woman’s breasts because they are available to be stared at, then feeling guilty about “lust”.

But an inability to stop staring at a woman’s body does not necessarily equal lust. It is quite definitely rude, and it will probably make that woman feel uncomfortable. It may also provoke jealously or hurt feelings in the wives or girlfriends of the men in question. Of course, it may even actually be lust—if the staring turns into sexualizing or objectifying. In any case, though, no one is forcing a man to stare at a woman; we can all learn to exercise self-control, even that most pitiable slave to his hormones and biological imperatives, the human male.[3]

More importantly, when men see a woman dressed more revealingly than is usual in their particular subculture, the feeling they are most likely experiencing is discomfort, not lust. And because it is nice to make people feel comfortable whenever possible, women (and men) may want to consider how to dress appropriately for a given context. If you’re going to the beach, wear a bikini! If you’re going to a party, wear a cocktail dress! If you’re going to a conservative evangelical church… consider a long skirt and a turtleneck sweater.

Of course, you may have excellent reasons for disregarding the comfort of others in deciding what to wear. Maybe the memory of past abuse gives you a sick feeling whenever you imagine dressing to accommodate someone else’s morals. Maybe another person in your life is always trying to control your appearance, and you need to assert your independence. Maybe you’ve decided that your conservative church needs a push with regard to “modesty”, so you throw on your best push-up bra in the name of feminism and Jesus. Or maybe you’re just feeling down and really need to look fantastic today. I don’t know; I’m not your conscience.

The important thing is to think about it. If you can dress to fit in with the culture of your context, do so with joy. If you don’t feel like you can, it’s on that culture to treat you like a human anyway.

I’ll spot you the polite choice for one particular context: if you’re going to be around my mom, throw on a pair of pants.





  1. Personally, I find it less disturbing to believe he came downstairs in his boxers than to consider why he owned a pair of outerwear shorts people might easily mistake for boxers.  ↩

  2. You have no idea how hard I work for you guys.  ↩

  3. (This is totally sarcasm.)  ↩